Ohne Titel (der Punkt)
The color of the spot on my foot is such that it cannot be described in relative terms, which is to say, the spot is a “dark chocolate brown” as compared to the more “ruddy pink” flesh which surrounds it.
This would fail to explain why I can then see it clean through my shoe, why I see it constantly in dreams, why within minutes of meeting any woman, the spot is there, plainly reflected in her face, calling my name, naming me. No, the color of the spot on my foot cannot be described in terms of the visual; instead, it is best understood by proxy, through another sensate experience; it is – the taste of blood in my mouth: foreign and independent, though at once inherently connected.
The spot on my foot is a giant tree, standing perfectly and absurdly straight, growing upright from the middle of the deep end of the pool in the backyard of every house I ever grew up in. No one climbs this tree, no one in the neighborhood asks after its origins. Children visiting the house to play during my grammar school years pretended not to see it, indeed, heaved themselves off the diving board directly at it, only at the last moment, shifting directions, adjusting airspeed, flapping their soggy arms as if intending to fly over it, only to end up planted somewhere near the meeting point of the majestic trunk and the placid surface of the lukewarm water.
But I knew they noticed. They pissed themselves, underwater, pissed on the base of the tree, the spot on my foot, in that pool. And in their hidden disgust, marking their territory, I was somehow alternately repulsed, guilty, and immensely proud. I was the spot on my foot.
As I grew older, I invented methods to draw attention near it, but not directly at it, thinking that this might somehow allow me to maintain a degree of quiet honesty with both myself and others. Further, I reflected on a truth that I had seen in action countless times: after all, what was less obvious to a person than the quotidian, the banal, the refuse of every ordinary life consisting of nameless piles of disregarded stuff, always right there in our sight, but never fully acknowledged.
There were various historical models which I pursued during the development of this hypothesis. I was seventeen, smoked cigarettes without inhaling, jangled coins in my pockets to an imaginary rhythm, wrote letters to editors of newspapers overseas, which I clumsily translated by way of pocket dictionaries, first from English to Portuguese, then from Portuguese to French. I ate plum flavored jam on toast with cheese. All of the historical models I studied had ended up in horrible and overwhelming defeat, as well, but that did nothing to deter me.
In the spring of 1945 as the Russian army assumed four positions in their tactical surrounding of Berlin, Germany, now at the end of her second attempt to take over the world, and was near to falling.
Hitler had ordered the people of the city to protect the surrounding suburbs with every bit of their very flesh and marrow, thinking that the wall of impenetrable humans would somehow dissuade the Russians from marching.
Ordinary citizens, playacting the parts of soldiers, fortified their positions at the edges of Berlin as the red army pounded the buildings for eight days straight, slowly encroaching, meter after meter, effectively strangling the city from the outside in. The outer suburbs were quickly laid to rubble, the strategy failed miserably, the residents of the city suffered horrendously and lost everything – food, home, will.
Though they had stood in unison as a human shield, a testament to the unified will of the central city, they had served instead as targets for the enemy, standing there, absorbing every mortar aimed in their direction.
In Berlin, the inner rings of the city fell shortly after. After a close study of this model, I concluded that I would wear brashly colored striped socks every day, in a concentrated effort to attract the unsuspecting gaze of my every onlooker to the exact area where they could destroy me, to, in point of fact, lead them by the hand to the shelf and cabinet wherein my Achilles was kept, all in the hopes of ultimately misleading them through subtle and sly trickery.
Impossible blood reds alternated with an olive green the color of prehistoric foliage, which together vibrated intensely, both attracting and temporarily blinding anyone looking down near my feet. Look near the spot, you! I was a fool, a clown.
I began to hate people, no, humanity in general, and had few friends, or rather, several acquaintances in the corporate bureaucracy who, out of sympathy, regularly invited me out to different social events. I looked into their eyes during such uncomfortable moments, suffering through the humiliation of their invitation, feigning a pitiful glee, all the while knowing they merely wanted fodder for jokes and stories at next year’s annual Christmas party.
Whatever they could think of to get my shoes off in public, they tried. We went roller-skating at least once a month. After several years, my coworkers were Olympic caliber athletes; they shared speed records and argued over petitioning the committee for an Exhibition Sport consideration in the games of 2020. They gnawed constantly on scraps of handheld food like anxious, craven rabbits, destroying fistfuls of tuberous vegetables with riotous verdant plumes at their tops, their breath smelling like hot carrots and celery; they were wretched specimens.
Watching them all from the rafters where I would climb after sneaking away and changing back out of my skates, the members of the bureaucracy became tiny Nascar competitors, endlessly bucking and straining around the ellipsis of the rink, frantically trying to outpace the others.
Ice skating, hot tub parties, car washing fund raisers – their ploys were shameless, and knowing my part in the grand scheme of their lives and this story, I humbly acquiesced.
At work, I developed crushes on all of the women in lower administrative positions; I perceived this to be the only way to exact my revenge on the bureaucrats: in secret, I loved their helpers. Never before had I bestowed so much genuine and unrequited love on such a banal litany of questions: Can I borrow your stapler, How are you liking the smaller post-it notes this season, Did you get the black or the pinto beans during the Springtacular Company Event….
The simple irony in the existence of the spot nowhere less than on my foot does not escape me: but an “unsuitable substitute” for what exactly, I think. I ponder the meaning of Freud’s language, “an executive weakness of the sexual apparatus,” and immediately and uncontrollably turn to thoughts of the fifth-level female administrators, with their cropped or otherwise equally restrained hair, who serve the lowest echelon in the first order of the corporate bureaucracy.
I keep them close to my thoughts, harbor them vigilantly, as the dock and tugboats cradle the mammoth shipping vessels and containers that line the ports. Thusly, I will not let the spot on my foot become detached from the particularity of myself, the individual.
Together, we are one.
I spoke no German in Cologne when I first visited during a vacation from the corporate headquarters in my mid-twenties. Every morning, I ventured out from my hotel chamber, down the street to the tobacconist, where I bought the English papers.
Reading the news over coffee and toast in the intimate confines of the café, I drew pictures every morning of my eggs, offering these instead of a verbal order to the waitresses, who only smiled uncomfortably, returning sometime later with a plate of toast covered by with eggs by order of my drawing.
My spot traveled overseas, I saw it in their faces, I saw it clearly described in the tiny yolk of the ‘fried egg drawing’ on the blank white sheet of paper I turned over to them, every morning, when I knew they knew.
How could I then love them? Those German girls, with their particular aversion to striped socks…. I did everything possible to solidify my relationship with them, cradled my cigarette more gently, ate with fork and knife all at once, smiled only with the corner of my mouth like a mad jackal in heat.
I sat there at breakfast and imagined the waitresses, each of them singularly, stumbling upon my hotel room as I entered or exited, the fantasy alternating between the two, whereupon they requested permission to use my bath, or some other such activity involving my bathroom to prepare or clean themselves. There, I would study them, an ethnographer and a pervert, quietly taking sturdy mental notes. Eventually, after a time devoted entirely to their preening, they would invite me into the bath.
For what seemed like hours in the fantasy, I would be sitting on the toilet, admiring their level of attention and ability to ignore me, startled at the resistance of their skin to pruning after so much time submerged, all the while thinking solely of the spot on my foot. They could love me, surely, but then – how could they love that spot?
To bathe was to reveal, to reveal was to surrender, to surrender was to suffer the complications of mockery and to therefore be doomed to exile and loneliness. I returned home shortly thereafter, to Corporate Headquarters, and continued to borrow the stapler.
The opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real. These are the words printed on my favorite t-shirt, which I have made seven versions of, each a different shade of pink, each with the abbreviated name of a corresponding day of the week on the back.
At the mall where I had the iron-on letters placed on the shirts, all in black capitals of a soft felt, the girls behind the counter could not have been more sixteen years old. They smoothed out the t-shirts on the counter in front of me, their taut, flexed digits ending in manicured nails too long to be taken seriously, white-striped cartoons of themselves leaving temporary scratched lines where they confirmed the location of the lettering on each of the pink shirts. Those fingers, an exposed terminus of the body, like my foot and the spot would have been in that German bath, through those fingers could they not identify with my secret? Could they not see the spot on the other side of the counter, below them, hovering there, shielded by the striped socks and my unconvincing smile?
Now I wear the shirts underneath my white collared shirt and tie, sport coat, and on colder winter days, my great navy wool overcoat. There, the phrase hides, an attachment and extension of myself, echoing the spot on my foot, the locus of my isolation, my self imposed exile. I move out from my apartment into the street all in one motion. To play is to remain always in one place, which confirms then that movement is a necessary version of the real.
A Truncated Compendium of Statistics Concerning
Four states lead the nation in cycling deaths: California, Florida, New York, and Texas, which accounted for 43% of all bicycle deaths in the year 2003. Auto crashes are the leading cause of death for bicycling people age 6-27, males age 6-23 and 26. The first automobile crash in the United States occurred in New York City in 1896, when a motor vehicle collided with a bicyclist, severing both legs below the knee and effectively bleeding out the victim, who could not be saved by doctors, and died in the dusty street, staring down at the limbs, now foreign, though moments before attached.
Of the many bicycling accidents in the state of California, more than 67% occur within the vicinity of, or necessarily adjacent to, sites where other sporting events are either taking place, have taken place in the past, or will take place in the future.
The second historical appearance of a two-wheeled riding machine was in 1865, when instead of pushing one’s feet against the ground, pedals were applied directly to the front wheel. This machine was known as the velocipede, or "fast foot". It was popularly known as the big cat bone shaker, since it was also made entirely of Manzanita wood, having a beautiful leopard design, where small spots of deep burgundy bark naturally flaked away to reveal a lovely olive shade beneath.
And so it was a Wednesday night, around half past eight, and I in my late twenties now, having been invited once again by the members of the corporate bureaucracy, this time to a bowling night function at some local lanes. Knowing full well that the event offered another installment of their supposedly covert strategy, wherein I would by necessity have to change into proper sporting footwear squarely in front of them, thereby exposing the stripes and the spot, I went anyway, once again playing my part.
It was a brisk evening, too cold for early spring, and I fancied myself somehow not unlike the soldiers of the red army, heading anxiously onward to Berlin, prepared for war and knowing full well the situation that lie ahead, the Corporate Bureaucracy’s version of Adolf Hitler Platz, der bowling alley. Surely it’s no accident that the Germans have over fifteen words which roughly translate in English to spot, including platz, punkt and pickel. Surrounded by myself, I was to be defeated by my spot.
Traveling west on Venice Boulevard in the lane closest to the sidewalk, I had slowed down a block or two after Sepulveda Blvd., as I was looking for the bowling alley: the MarVista Lanes. From a distance of a block or more, I saw ahead of me the sign for the cross street I had been searching for, and slowed down considerably more as I knew that the bowling alley was then close by. I discarded a cigarette out of the driver’s side window, letting my hand hang aimlessly outside for an extra second. The radio was off, though I could somehow hear the news in my head.
When I saw the entrance to the parking lot, it appeared at once vaguely familiar, as I had been there before on trips with the Corporate Bureaucracy, though for some reason, it came upon me suddenly. I was not traveling terribly fast, maybe ten miles an hour, as I had slowed down even more after noticing the cross street up ahead, only moments before. I turned right into the parking lot of the bowling alley and heard a sudden and distinct “scratching” sound towards the rear and passenger side of the vehicle. In a flash, I felt several eyes upon me, faces appearing from out of nowhere lining the parking lot, seemingly curious and hostile.
The sound, insistent and absolutely unique in nature, can be described best perhaps as the sound a large tree branch might make when scratching against a slab of metal, not unlike the tanks of the red army, poised before battle in the forests at the outskirts of Berlin. When they took to their offensive, how their temporary disguise – the massive shrouds of tree branches — must have sounded, clawing off of the iron and falling dumbly to the forest floor, arboreal traitors and their graves.
This had all happened too suddenly for me to be scared; indeed, fear was not an option. Only a few short years earlier, I had been drawing pictures of my breakfast in a foreign land to beautiful girls who I had envisioned bathing in my dirty tub, and now this. But what was this? For the first time in my life, things had happened with such immediacy, with such complete urgency, that I can recall now those precious few minutes when I did not think of the spot on my foot.
The car lurched as I engaged the foot brake and set it in the park position. I frantically exited the vehicle to see what had happened, imagining the obscene and pondering the further harsh cruelties that might be visited upon me in this world.
I had parked in the sidewalk, halfway out into the street and halfway into the parking lot. I ran around the side of the vehicle, as instinctively, I believed the noise had come from over my right shoulder, near the rear of the car. The red tail-lights cast a strange glare, a low-level emergency warning which I was foolish not to notice at the time.
Beneath the yellowish circle of the streetlights and behind the car, near the curb, was a young man. He, perversely tangled up in the frame of his bicycle, looked like a landed version of an octopus in a fisherman’s stiff net. Somehow he had too many limbs, and for some reason, the bicycle appeared limp, strategically draped around the boy’s body like a spider’s web around a fly.
And so it dawned on me that here was the blunt explanation for the noise I had previously heard. It was not immediately that I came to realize that I was the perpetrator of such violence, that I had somehow caused this scene, much to the delight of the onlookers there, in the parking lot on that chilly Wednesday night. So this is what one means when they refer to an accident, I thought to myself, feeling a dull sense of remove from the moment.
I theorized: if I had no idea what happened at all, even to the point of feeling almost entirely uninvolved, then can it still be called an accident? And further, how does it feel to be a confirmed misanthrope, to have come this close to inadvertently eliminating one of them, and yet – to have failed, without realizing that one was even making an attempt? Could one’s subconscious be put on trial?
At this point, several facts became clear to me all at once. 1) The rider was a male, young, wearing what appeared to be semi-professional riding gear, all of which was black. 2) The bike itself was black, although there was a headlight mounted on the handlebars; it was switched on. 3) I had never seen the bike in my rearview, and judging from this, I assumed he had been riding very close to the side of the vehicle, and perhaps even in my blind spot, for a distance of several hundred feet, only as slowly or quickly as a bicycle might travel. 4) The rider was not wearing a helmet.
I bent down, and knelt there for some time next to the boy, who appeared to be in his late teens or early twenties. His face was smooth, and as he winced, freckles on his cheeks doubled over on each other in the folds of skin nearest his eyes. What at first appeared to be a gently resting ladybug just behind his ear turned out to be a life-sized tattoo of the same insect, in a rich grass-like green, hovering gracefully on his neck.
I asked him if he was okay, and he moved himself around slightly, angling his neck and back, and then propping his head on a sweatshirt handed to him by a witness in the area, a stout mustachioed man walking down the street at the time, with a half-eaten candy bar and small, dirty hands.
I asked him if I could do anything for him, maybe get him water, to which he replied that he had a backpack on with water in it. I noticed the water-spout and tube which hung over his right shoulder, dangling there on his arm. I asked him if he was cold, or hurt, and others there were asking after his health, pain, etc. He said that he felt a bit dizzy, moments later adding that he thought his left leg (which was tangled in the bike, though it was unharmed) was in pain and possibly broken.
He knew his name, and said that he was just in shock. Someone asked me for my information (name, driver’s license #, etc.) and put the paper with the scrawled numbers into his backpack. I parked my car in the lot out of the way of the entrance. No one dared to move the victim, not even to disengage him from the web of the bike; the security guard from the alley stood sentinel over him, making sure of this. He, quietly repeating to himself the words, he – she – no one supposed to take your driver license number – I not supposed to take your driver license number – only the police supposed to do that.
While I was exiting my vehicle just yards away in the parking lot, I was approached by a middle-aged woman wearing a man’s tie and turning a slight limp off of her left leg, who told me she had been driving behind me, heading westbound on the boulevard at the same time. Further, she offered that she had seen the bicyclist “holding on to the back of the truck” since perhaps as far away as Sepulveda Blvd., several blocks east of the alley.
She used the phrases “hitching on the back’” and “tagging,” and I noticed small remnants of spittle misting off of her too wet mouth, as she spoke there in the yellow light of the parking lot. She offered to give me her information and said she would be willing to present herself as a witness should I need her. Her name was K-. I took down her number, placed it on the seat of my car, stared at her for an imperceptible moment, and to myself, barely audible, asked her if she was a secretary, if she was employed.
Years ago, when I had visited the British pubs in northern Europe, things were noticeably different, though at once, exactly the same. The bars, tattooed on the inside with cigarette smoke and men in conversation, loud talk and liquor. Crowded around the pool table, they referred to the game as “spots and stripes,” and not the conventional “stripes and solids” I was accustomed to hearing in the States.
Before each game between strangers, the house rules for the table were renegotiated, and parameters were agreed upon for play. Before the game ever started, the battle had begun. Charging down the stairwell of my apartment building earlier in the evening, before finding myself here in the parking lot of the bowling alley, I had neatly avoided a shameful catastrophe.
I am in the habit of rushing headlong down the four flights of stairs, all in a calculated effort to beat a timed record to the bottom floor of the lobby in one mad dash. My personal best currently stands at under thirty-eight seconds. Rounding the stairs between the third and second floors, I very nearly tripped disastrously as I noticed something out of the very bottom of my eye, twitching. In the industrial gray of the utility carpet, something there seemed to stir, tucked in tightly between the crease in two stairs. Kneeling down, I came close enough to smell the stiffened cat, too scared to move, all gray stripes and neatly camouflaged. Having nearly killed the thing, I paused to stroke it lengthwise, over its bony ribcage, rubbing the tops of its back feet, long like that of a rabbit, satisfied at having restored its dignity once the gentle rumbling began to stir deep from within its throat. In a flash, I was off again.
From the parked car, I returned to the injured biker, whose name I then learned was Carl. He was now huddled into the concrete space near where the sidewalk drops down from the curb, all metal and limbs curled up like a half-man half-robot ampersand. Again, I asked him if there was anything he needed, if there was someone who he wanted to call, and after muttering a name which sounded something like, “Ellen” he quietly said no. From somewhere in the night, sirens wailed.
“Do you know what posh means?”
“Don’t think about your leg. Posh. Do you know what it means?”
“Ah – upper-crusty? Something like that?”
“No, not like the dictionary definition.”
“Means Port Outward, Starboard Home. It’s an old nautical term. Comes from the British navy. I guess they had nothing to do, you know, just a bunch of old geezers out on a boat together in the middle of nowhere for months on end.”
“So it does mean elegant. You were right about that. But really, where it comes from is nautical. Legend? I don’t know. Story goes that wealthy British passengers preferred the more expensive, shady cabins on the port side of the ships going out through the Mediterranean on their way to India, and on the starboard side returning to Britain.”
“That’s nice. Did somebody call the ambulance yet? I think I’m going into shock.”
“Do you know where the phrase, ‘someone let the cat out of the bag’ comes from?
‘Cause it’s nautical, too?”
When the fire department finally showed up, removed the bike from around the leg, and checked his vitals, neck and back, he was nearly passed out and shivering violently.
By this time, I had explained to him the nautical origins for “chew the fat,” “loose cannon,” “freezing the balls off a brass monkey” and a dozen others I made up right there, on the spot. And then it dawned on me. The paramedic swiftly dislodged the leg from inside the frame of the bicycle, in two or three separate, violent motions. Another paramedic was checking his pulse, pushing down into his chest, causing him to wince. I stood several feet away from all this, alone on the sidewalk, closer than anyone else, looking down at the scene. My jacket was in a bundle next to the bike, and I supposed for an instant, that anyone looking on from the parking lot behind me could clearly see the letters “WED” spelling out the day of the week across my back, visible now through the white over-shirt.
I stared intensely, wondering if I was a criminal, or an idiot, or somehow a victim myself, partially divorced as I was from reality. I could see every meal in every diner as I made my way across the continent by bus, by rental car, by assumed name. The paramedics examined his leg to see if it was broken, squeezed it, pulled off his black shoe and sock, barked at him to curl his toes. I stared and stared down at his foot, knowing full well that indeed, he was not the real victim here.
At that moment, I realized that this was still about me, that the Corporate Bureaucracy indoors, now bowling and waiting for my arrival, for cannon fodder, was powerful enough to orchestrate just such an event, to thoroughly and mockingly thrust my face in it.
They had done everything possible to draw me closer away from myself, to force me to ponder how the accident might one day expose me, and thusly – with sock removed beneath the forceful commands to curl my toes – show my spot to the world. The world was no longer a place of relative safety, secured by perpetual anonymity; I could no longer hide behind stripes. I hung my head in shame.
At 11:05 that night I called the hospital, and asked after the bike rider. Though the receptionist in the emergency room said she could not give out information over the phone, I told her I had gotten into an accident with a bike rider, and was curious to know how he was doing. She said that “he was there and he was stable” and could say no more. I confirmed this with her, trying desperately to explain away my culpability, my guilt.
“We are – all of us – put on the earth only to play host to vulnerability: it is a parasite that owns and binds us all,” I whimpered into the phone. There was nothing on the other end of the line. Silently, I hung up.